Sometimes, bike stories take time to develop. When I carded a green Huffy Tundra at the Eglinton West subway station in mid-March, my expectations were much lower than they are now. Luckily, the Tundra’s owner was a sober, yet determined young man.
He responded at once to my card, but denied having any stories. I don’t know why I insisted. We had trouble finding a time to meet, partly because he’s Jewish and weekends were not good for him. More interesting to me was his casual comment, “I should probably mention that I’m sixteen.”
At our first meeting, I was afraid of making a mess of his name—Yerachmiel Paquette—so he pronounced it first. Behind the shock of dark hair and the intense eyes, he’s extremely polite, very businesslike, and a little impatient. I was quite taken with him.
Yerachmiel’s educational committments are overwhelming. He only uses the Tundra to “bike to school and back.” Yerachmiel attends every day except Saturday. He goes into the ravine occasionally and he volunteers at the Children’s Garden in Cedarvale ravine.
I don’t expect adventure on the high seas with every story. Surprisingly, I discovered there was more to Yerachmiel’s bike stories. Two years ago, his aunt invited him to do the twenty-five kilometre leg of the Ride for Heart with her. He had to get out of school to participate, which “cost him an arm and a leg.” This year he did the full distance on his own.
“Do you like doing fundraisers?” I ask, hoping for a story.
Pragmatically, he comments, “It’s my best opportunity for getting out of school.”
Yerachmiel and I kept in touch on email, but in November he had news he couldn’t share online. He was brimming with enthusiasm. This time he really did have a bike story.
That afternoon, Yerachmiel shows me a seashell on a string, around his neck. He’s carrying an iPod, full of photographs.
“Six months ago, Yerachmiel begins, “a friend ask me to join him on a fund-raising ride through Israel. It was called The Wheels of Love, supporting children of ALYN Hospital in Jerusalem.” The five-day journey across the northern expanse would be expensive. Each entrant must raise $2500 for the charity, plus pay a $700 registration fee. There was also the plane fare to consider. It seemed out of the question.
Yerachmiel’s mother gave him permission, even though it meant missing school. Within two days, friends and family had raised $800. His grandmother alone sponsored him the registration fee and lent him money for plane fare. When he handed in his sheet, the total was a surprising $2700.
Two days before he was to leave, Yerachmiel discovered that his own bike was unrideable. Scrambling, he borrowed and safetied a friend’s road bike—a Thin Blue Line Duster—which he has since purchased for himself and named Willow.
“The first day was the hardest riding I’ve ever done,” he says. Yerachmiel had registered for the off-road element to join his friend, but as I already knew, Yerachmiel is a commuter. Worse, his friend had two flats that day, and by the final pit stop they were dead last. Yerachmiel kindly waited for his friend to complete his repairs and then sped off, wanting to end the day near the front of the pack: grinning shyly, he tells me he succeeded.
The second day of the tour, they rode along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
“I knew I was in for a good time,” Yerachmiel relates, describing the beautiful, blue skies. The participants were all sleep-deprived and Yerachmiel was exhausted from the first day, so the cycle up into the mountains was “the most gruelling part of the ride.” And yet, he shows me a breath-taking photo of himself, with Galilee and a small city called Tiberius in the background.
“Tell me about the landscape!” I exclaim, awed by the beauty of the country.
“We biked over every kind of terrain you can imagine,” he says. “The hardest were the piles of donkey dung: it was like riding over undulating compost piles.” When they travelled through mud, the bikes became caked. “ I pulled fist-sized chunks of mud out of the spokes.”
At one point he got a bit lost; to get back on route, he climbed fifty metres carrying the bike through thorn bushes. “Even getting lost was fun!” he says.
On the last night, the off-road contingent joined the road contingent for a celebration. There were images of the ride on a big screen, awards and a dance party. The next morning, everyone was bussed to Jerusalem, where they cycled into the hills to visit the hospital. The street was lined with cheering children bearing handmade posters. The organizers announced that the event had raised $1,700,000.
“You felt like you had accomplished something special… something big,” Yerachmiel says, beaming.
He stayed in Israel for a few days. Yerachmiel toured Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and then went into the country, describing it as “a great country to ride around.” Because of the sandy soil, everyone rides mountain bikes with fat tires and front shocks.
“You can see a whole city in a day or two on a bike,” he says. “I felt really connected to it … I wanted to be involved at street level, because people treat you differently. You’re part of the experience, connected to it like a car can’t be.”
And what has this extraordinary bike story taught my young friend? That on a bike, “…until you’re miserable and free and independent, you can’t complain.”